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Solar Wall Symbolizes Failed Energy Policies

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact

Congress and President Bush may revive a plan to build a giant solar panel system on the headquarters of the Department of Energy (DoE).  Intended to symbolize the government’s commitment to clean energy, the so-called “sun wall” instead shines a light on the government’s commitment to wasting tax dollars.

Conceived when President Clinton was in office, the project was initially mothballed by President George W. Bush.  The President signaled a change of heart in 2006 amid growing concerns over climate change and dependence on foreign oil.  On January 24, 2006, the President issued an executive order intended to increase energy efficiency in all federal facilities, which may include the solar panel project.  On February 12, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 798, directing the General Services Administration to spend $30 million on a solar wall the size of a football field.  The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.     

The solar panel would replace the concrete barrier on the south wall of DoE headquarters, the James Forrestal building.  In December 2000, the Department of Energy awarded $20,000 to a contest winner for the design of a sweeping curved panel over a pool of water. 

The average cost of solar power is more than $4 per watt, which is far more expensive than coal and oil-based power.  Solar power requires large plots of land to accommodate the numerous photovoltaic cells needed to power dense areas.  The DoE headquarters is located in Washington, D.C., where large expanses of land are not available.

To produce as much power as a nuclear plant in a typical year, solar panels would have to cover 127 square miles – an area twice the size of Washington, D.C.  These mirrors would have to be washed every few days and would need a natural gas back-up system to keep the fluid bubbling during nightime and cloudy days.  Solar power is unworkable as a major power source, especially in major cities, yet the government is continuing with the project for its “symbolic” value. 

The government should not create an energy system if its costs outweight its benefits.  Spending $30 million on a fancy solar panel does not change the fact that solar power remains expensive and impractical, even after years of generous subsidies and tax credits.   

The solar wall will become a footnote in a decades-long exercise in futility.  President Carter called for a “national commitment to solar energy” in 1979, with the goal of renewable energy sources producing 20 percent of the nation’s energy by 2000.  From 1973 to 2002, the government spent a total of $14.2 billion (in 2003 constant dollars) on R&D for renewable energy.  Yet renewables met only 5.9 percent of the nation’s energy in 2002, a decline from their percentage contribution in 1980.  Solar and wind combined to contribute a mere 0.19 percent of total U.S. energy needs. 

Decades of subsidies and tax credits have failed to make renewable energies viable, yet Democrats and Republicans remain wedded to them.  Not surprisisingly, 33 years after President Nixon introduced “energy independence” as the central goal of energy policy, the U.S. remains as dependent on imported oil as ever.  The solar wall is a testament to the government’s failed intervention in energy markets. 

-- Seth Weinstein

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